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Muhammad Ali’s activism shines a light on an opportunity for NBA players

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The league and its key players are in a unique position to continue the conversation that Ali started.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali was truly incomparable. As Daniel Roberts wrote, "Greatest stood alone, floating, butterfly-like, unencumbered by a noun or any other superfluous impediment that might weigh it down." Ali doesn't just stand alone at the pinnacle; he practically defines it. Mentioning any other athletes just didn't feel right.

There were a few exceptions. Obviously, Liston, Frazier, and Foreman are key figures as plot points. I saw Jack Johnson and Sugar Ray Robinson mentioned as arguably more accomplished fighters. There were nods to Jackie Robinson's vast import. And then there were the references to Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

In this case, being mentioned in the same breath as Muhammad Ali was a dubious honor. We were reminded that MJ aggressively dodged politics during his career and that James, for all his recent forays into elevated consciousness, still wouldn't put his personal brand at risk with anything resembling Ali's level of candor. The implication was clear, though: The only post-Ali athletes with anywhere near the same potential power -- and the expectations that come with it -- were both NBA players.

There are plenty of surface-level similarities between basketball and boxing. Granted, one is a team sport and the other a solitary pursuit, but in the end, both embrace the cult of the individual. Even when we discuss championships and dynasties, the debate comes down to (using language borrowed from Ali, no less) the GOAT. The importance of an athlete's style and creativity, the how as much as the what, is an integral part of what makes each sport so compelling. And perhaps because of this, we want to understand them as multi-dimensional human beings, not just cogs in a machine.

But there's another element at play: The NBA, like Muhammad Ali, makes race unavoidable. As much as Ali transcended boxing, sports, nation, language, and even era, reducing him to a universal misses the point. At a crucial juncture in history, Ali asserted his race and religion in a way that was impossible to ignore or downplay. You can't separate what Ali achieved from blackness or Islam. He demanded unconditionally that anyone encountering Muhammad Ali acknowledge their importance, both to who he was and to the world. Often unintentionally and sometimes even reluctantly, the NBA performs a similar role in American society.

That's not to compare present-day players to Ali but merely to point out that race is an ineluctable fact of the NBA. The NFL may also be predominantly African-American but it by no means has the same socio-cultural overtones to it. If anything, it presents a far less progressive, if not regressive, metaphor for the ways race works in America. The NBA, though, is frequently referred to as "a black league," one where players are placed front and center, given performative autonomy, and allowed to express themselves through both their play and their personalities. As with Ali, there's no separating identity from action.

This puts NBA players like Jordan and James in a unique position. They aren't just celebrities, they're high-profile public figures whose fame is invariably understood through the lens of race. As a result, they're expected to have something to say about race-related topics. It's naïve to think that MJ would have ever been asked about the Senatorial race if the Democratic candidate, Harvey Gantt, hadn't been African-American, and his opponent Jesse Helms, whose record on the issue was, to say the least, questionable. When it was announced that there would no charges filed against, Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland police officer who fatally shot Tamir Rice, some called on LeBron James to sit out games in protest.

In James's case, though, these expectations hardly came out of nowhere. Over the last few years, LeBron has embraced his role as a spokesperson, especially when it comes to violence against young black men. He's also, as J.A. Adande noted, following in the footsteps of Michael Jordan's economic form of empowerment. Jordan now owns a team and an apparel company that consistently places minorities in positions of power. Maverick Carter, LeBron's right-hand man, has said that when it comes to their camp's business and marketing coups, "You can't shy away from what you are. We're young, African-American men."

Of course, Ali's brand of activism was worlds away from anything LeBron, much less Jordan, has aligned himself with or sought to communicate by example. Ali might even have found himself disagreeing with them on substance. Both are, after all, rabid capitalists whose principles remain murky at best. Within the context of the NBA, there's no question that James has gone out of his way to change the way players view systems of power. Whether through the player-centric construction of super-teams or by pioneering the use of single-year deals and options to place pressure on front offices, James has repeatedly upended expectations when it comes to contract and labor in the NBA, albeit always in a way that benefits his long-term interests.

But it's not just James, the elite of the elite, who has embraced this intersection of sports and culture. While endorsing Barack Obama was hardly a radical act, in both 2008 and 2012 NBA players came out in full force to rally voters. In 2014, the Clippers and Warriors suggested they would have boycotted at least one game had the league not taken strong action against Donald Sterling. And it's no accident that Adam Silver's NBA partnered with Michael Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund for ads that amounted to an official position on gun control, an issue that disproportionately affects the black community. It represented a sharp contrast with David Stern, whose dress code was a clear sign that "hip-hop" was a marketing liability.

It's blasphemous to suggest that anyone could approach Ali's level of cultural influence, especially when, as in the case of NBA players, it's foisted upon them rather than taken on voluntarily and at an intense personal cost. Jordan and James are both too calculating (and calculated) to ever truly make that kind of sacrifice.

But there's no imperative that they be as radical, as impassioned, or as intent on shaking society to its core as Muhammad Ali was. That NBA players invariably signify more than just themselves is a testament to Ali's legacy. However reluctantly, the sport helps keep the conversation he started open.

And if a player like LeBron James wants to take it upon himself to influence that conversation -- to truly follow in Ali's footsteps -- he has that opportunity.